Bienvenidos a Chile – I literally just arrived in San Pedro De Atacama after my 3 day tour of the Salar De Uyuni (Bolivia Salt Flats) and it feels like far more than 3 weeks since I visited Machu Picchu.
At the time of writing this post I’m heading south towards La Serena – Valle De Elqui on a 16-hour long bus ride with some truly spectacular scenery.
I’m also now officially inside the final week of my Solo World Tour and can’t believe my journey spanning over a year is coming to an end. During the past week in particular I have done so much reminiscing and have savoured many of the moments I took for granted earlier in my tour. Simple things like walking around a town alone during dusk – people watching and thinking about what it would be like to live in the shoes of a local or simply sitting underneath the stars on a clear evening drinking a local beer and chatting with a friendly local. I’m really going to miss the freedom of travel.
Anyway, before I get too emotional I thought I would write a quick blog post about my time in Peru – particularly Cusco and Machu Picchu.
My delayed arrival in the capital Lima meant that I missed out on the opportunity to stroll into Miraflores and experience what is acclaimed to be the best food scene in Latin America. I was particularly disappointed I was not able to try the ceviche as not only is it one of my favourite dishes, but also widely accepted to be one of the best.
I was also crazy enough to book a 6:00am flight the next morning to Cusco to avoid the frequent cancellations. This also happened to coincide with my 39th birthday – probably not the best timing to be arriving in a new city on your birthday without any friends to celebrate with.
Cusco sits at an elevation of about 3400 metres and I was also conscious of the effects of altitude as most of my earlier travels tended to be around sea level. Most of the advice I was given was to steer clear of alcohol for a few days, take it easy and drink lots of mate de coco (coco-leaf tea).
Upon arriving at my hostel later that morning, I treated myself to a private room then went for a stroll around the beautiful town that is Cusco. The town had a real European feel to it and brought back memories of Kraków, and Kotor in particular. I was also relieved to not experience any altitude sickness. Apart from some shortness of breath and a mild headache I was fine but also aware that I had higher altitude to follow in La Paz and Uyuni.
Later that evening I also treated myself to a fancier than usual dinner at one of Cusco’s higher end dining establishments – Marcelo Batata. I decided to try the local specialty Alpaca Saltada with a local chilli and sacred valley honey salsa. I was super impressed as the meat was ultra tender and not gamey in the slightest. I also washed it down with a Pisco Sour despite the advice to lay-off the alcohol.
The next day I visited the local San Pedro Mercado (Market) – an activity I have enjoyed so regularly during my travels. Not only was I able to have a traditional local lunch for only a few dollars but I was also able to stock up on some small snacks for my upcoming Machu Picchu trip.
The San Pedro market in particular was also full of interesting and unique produce such as vibrant blue corn, donkey head and loaves of bread bigger than my head.
After experiencing some of Cusco’s finest dining I decided to return to my normal type of routine and seek out a smaller, local type establishment and was fortunate to find Seledonia’s Waik’uc restaurant.
Seledonia runs a very small restaurant very close to my hostel in Recoleta and is known for her home style cooking with passion and a little flair. I decided to try her Alpaca Saltada to compare against what I consumed the night before and was blown away by the quality of her dish which at half the price I paid the night before was just as good.
I returned the following evening and was impressed at her consistency. That night I also struck some conversation with the waitress whom remembered me from the night before – Susan from the Netherlands. She invited me to join her for a few Pisco cocktails at the Museo De Pisco which I gladly accepted. That night turned out to be far bigger than I expected as we hit the Cusco nightclub scene into the early hours and before I knew it I was on the train heading towards Aguas Calientes with zero sleep and a nasty hangover.
The Peru Rail train which leaves from Poroy (30 mins outside Cusco) is the world’s most expensive train based on distance covered. Being limited on time I didn’t have 5 days to spare for a trek to Machu Picchu so had so settle with the picturesque views from the train – which unfortunately I didn’t experience as I slept most of the 4+ hour journey.
Aguas Calientes is a tiny tourist town which only exists as a stopover for the masses of people heading to Machu Picchu. I had purchased my Machu Picchu / Huayna Picchu (Waynapiccu) ticket online about a month earlier as only 400 people are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu daily. I chose the first of two groups (7:00AM climb) to beat the heat of the midday sun as well as not contend with the 200 people making their way down the steep narrow stairs from the first group.
This meant I had to be up at 4:00AM once again for breakfast and then ride the first bus to Machu Picchu at 5:15AM. I was stunned when I got to the bus terminal to literally see a queue of people spanning a few hundred metres also wanting to enter the site at sunrise.
Being one of the first to enter Machu Picchu was well worth travelling in the day prior and getting up early for. Most of the masses arrived around midday which meant there were far fewer people around in the morning which not only made for better photographs but most importantly some time to actually absorb the surroundings.
The 45-minute climb up to the peak of Huayna Picchu was definitely challenging but nowhere near as scary as many of the reviews represented it. At altitude I was breaking a decent sweat and gasping for air a few times but that was quickly forgotten once I got to the peak and experienced the view which is one of the best of my trip thus far.
Rather than climbing back down the way I came, I decided to climb down the back of the mountain to see the Temple of the Moon. This involved a 1 hour descent involving a few ladders as the site actually sits below the main Machu Picchu site. The 2.5 hour return climb up was one of the most gruelling hikes I have ever experienced and towards the end my quads were absolutely burning with fire.
Upon returning to the main site I found a nice quiet spot to sit down to discretely eat my sandwich and fruit (food is not permitted on the site). I then spent a couple of hours walking around the main site which very quickly became full of tourists.
Following this I set off on a 1 hour return hike to the Inca Bridge which was at the southern end of the main site. This particular hike was quite flat which was a welcome relief for my weary legs and battered knees which felt like every bit of cartilage had been eroded from climbing up and down those steep and tiny Inca steps.
After returning from the Inca Bridge I was left with my last challenge of reaching the Sun Gate which was about a 2 hour return hike. The hike up to the Sun Gate really tested my perseverance as my quads started to seriously cramp but I was able to overcome that and finally make it to the site.
By 3pm I had hiked for 7 hours at altitude and was seriously spent. However despite feeling exhausted I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment having completed far more than I had planned. It was easy to find extra motivation with amazing views rewarding your hard work.
Machu Picchu is truly impressive and I am so glad I was fortunate to experience it. Despite the masses of tourists, the sheer size and beauty of the site just demands your attention. There are also plenty of quiet and secluded places to sit down and simply admire its beauty.
Cusco was also a surprise packet and is well worth visiting with its beautiful architecture, vibrant food scene and friendly locals.
There is also far more to Peru than Cusco and Machu Picchu and one day I hope to experience more of what this country has to offer. I definitely have some unfinished business with Lima and its food scene.
Up next is Bolivia – what a diverse and action-packed 2 weeks I experience there.
Adios for now amigos.